“I Will Marry When I Want”, one of Africa’s most revered and controversial plays set in post-independence Kenya, was written by two men with the same first name. Today, however, one is highly celebrated while the other is almost forgotten.
The mention of Ngugi in African literature readily brings to the minds of many the Kenyan-born Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the global award-winning writer whose works focus on Africa and its interaction with its society before, during, and after colonisation.
Most people, particularly the younger generation, are aware of his intellectual and literary struggle for truth, justice and democracy through his books. But there was another Kenyan-born writer and playwright whose works and ideals largely had a lot in common with Ngugi
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Also called Ngugi, but with the surname, Mirii, he was much younger than Thiong’o and less-known. However, his love of using theatre and the arts to elicit changes in society would get him co-authoring one of the most influential works in modern African literature, I Will Marry When I Want with
The controversial Kikuyu play Ngaahika
The play was a major hit in Kenya and ran for an amount of time before the Kenyan authorities banned it. The two Ngugis were arrested and detained, but five years after their release, they co-wrote another, Mother Cry For Me, which also did not go down well with the government, forcing both men into exile.
In Zimbabwe, he wrote about the social issues facing ordinary citizens, criticised capitalism and imperialism and became a strong supporter of the Pan-African cause until his death in 2008.
Despite his sterling contributions to African literature and his fight for equality and justice through his works, he seems to have been relegated to the background as compared to the other Ngugi.
Though the play was banned by authorities and the two were arrested, Ngugi
He joined the Zimbabwean Foundation for Education with Production (ZIMFEP), where he worked for a few years. As a theatre lover, he founded the Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre (ZACT), an umbrella organisation which had a membership of over 300 theatre groups in its lifetime.
“Through ZACT Comrade helped the youth conscientise their communities on vast issues. The concept was theatre for the people by the people–for conscientization really on issues ranging from the political to championing rights for women and addressing the rapidly spreading HIV/AIDS,” writes Wanjiku Wa Ngugi, a Kenyan activist
As a Pan-Africanist, Wanjiku Wa Ngugi writes that Mirii worked towards a united Africa, travelled all over the world connecting the Pan-African struggle to the international movement in the fight against imperialism.
Twenty-six years after his escape from Kenya, Ngugi wa Mirii passed away in a car crash in Harare in May 2008 at the age of 57. Although Zimbabwe had given him a home and an opportunity to pursue his arts for effective change ideas, his body was returned to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi and he was buried next to his father and brother.
As the Kenyan activist, Wanjiku put it, “Ngugi was a beautiful human being, a Kenyan revolutionary, our friend, our comrade; To lose him is to lose part of our ourselves.”